Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Good Earth

Written by Pearl S. Buck, an American citizen who spent most of her childhood and much of her adult life in China, in 1931. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. I've heard much about it, mostly about a moment in the story when a woman gives birth and then goes back to work in the fields the same day, and have wanted to read it for quite some time.

I think it's always intimidating to read a classic. They are usually reserved for English classes or intellectuals and I worry that my understanding won't be up to snuff. Here goes:

The story begins on Wang Lung's wedding day. He is a peasant farmer, in China, who goes to the house of a wealthy farmer to pick up the bride his father has arranged for him to have: a plain, unattractive slave whose feet have never been bound and appear hideous to him. Large feet notwithstanding, he quickly learns to admire his hard-working and frugal wife. With their hard work and savings, Wang climbs up the economic ladder by being able to buy additional land to farm on. It's ALL about the land, in Wang's opinion. Land is forever. Land cannot be taken away.

Sure enough, what I heard about birthing and returning to work in the fields the same day was true. O-Lan, Wang's wife, is this incredibly docile, unassuming woman. She's the kind of woman that made me feel like a slacker for sitting around reading a book. Or taking a few weeks off of going to church after having a baby. I longed for more O-Lan, but that wasn't what this book was about. There were moments when I saw her pain, when I understood that in this culture, no one really loved O-Lan, despite her humility and service. Not her parents, who probably considered having a girl a burden and sold her as a slave when she was very young, not her owners, not her husband, and eventually, not even her own children. Wang appreciated her but all his appreciation did was allow him to feel ashamed when he brought a concubine to the home.

The beauty of the book, to me, was the irony that Buck skillfully weaves throughout the story. The rise and fall of the House of Hwang, where O-Lan was a slave, parallels Wang Lung's own story. It's the whole Nephite Pride Cycle! In fact, Buck's style of writing felt a bit like reading the scriptures. It was written dispassionately, even when writing about the character's passion. I also appreciated the Epic nature of the story. There is something to be learned from the successes and the tragedies.

As much as I liked it, and I liked it very much, I wasn't completely smitten. I read some of the original reviews which led to the Pulitzer Award, and most of them focus on the groundbreaking honest look into China. Apparently, up until that time, China, or the Orient, was poorly understood and most of the stories about it were romanticized and mystifying. Buck wrote about the China she saw, the day to day work and customs, the glory of sons to their families and the disregard to their daughters. While many parts of the story transcends time, parts of it felt obsolete and simple. Kind of like the first of anything. An original...yes. Groundbreaking...definitely. But then other books follow suit and readers have a choice of style and characters. I've read several books before that tell the chilling tale of peasant life in China. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan each detail the beauty, simplicity, horror and hardship of pre and post revolutionary China. Perhaps that exposure kept me from truly loving this story. Or maybe my expectations were too high.

No doubt, some of you who did read this in a class and had the opportunity to dissect it with an instructor, see what I am missing. If so...please share.

Until being convinced otherwise, my opinion is that this is a great book. Definitely a classic. But not one of my favorites.

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